The Bali Shipment

bali-goods2-010The last time we blogged, we were in the S.E. corner of Sabah, Borneo, waiting for an Indonesian visa and a boat to take us to Tarakan in Kalimantan.  The purpose of this was to make a more direct – although less-travelled – route between the Philippines and Jogjakarta in Java.

If “Tarakan, an island city in Kalimantan, Borneo” sounds intriguing and exotic in a Joseph Conrad way, the reality is a bit more mundane.  Notable moments came when our boat docked and the cabin door was opened – and we were stormed by an invading force of motorcycle-taxi drivers.  They barged through the first row of passengers, including us, in their haste to secure fares for the long ride down the pier to customs and immigration.  Welcome to Indonesia.  We,borneo-map of course, walked, and once there had to smile and mime our way through an inspection of Katheryn’s bag which turned up two suspicious items: tampons and a bag of black peppercorns.  Both, apparantly, unknown in the world of the (male) inspectors.  Our verdict on Tarakan? Nothing exciting.  Although all we did there was spend an evening wandering around finding food, accomodation, and a ticket out.

The ticket was for a flight, ostensibly in the morning, to Surabaya, Java.  Surabaya, known as the “necessary evil” of Java, is a massive city on the central north coast through which everything passes.  Our plan was to go straight to the station and take the 4 p.m. train out, but our Lion Air flight being 5 hours late put paid to that.  We were forced to arrive after dark and 013spend an overnight.  Nothing unpleasant happened; still I can’t say I hold the place high in my affections, and we were thrilled to be rolling out in the morning into the lush countryside of central Java.

We gave Jogja a chance.  We spent days wandering the markets and shops by foot and becak, yogya-004and went by motorbike into the surrounding villages.  We found painters and potters and sculptors and sewers – but apart from discovering a great big stone monument called Borobudur, it wasn’t what we were looking for.  We had better luck in Solo, a more conservative, less touristy city nearby, known for its massive textile market.  There we bought a few samples, and one superb piece: a copper batik chop. If we go back, it will definitely be for Solo rather than Jogja.

Back in Bali, and for the first time since leaving Vancouver we are on familiar ground.  We have a little Honda motorbike, a room booked in Ubud, and it’s time to get down to work.  OK, this is bali-goods2-007the fun part of the job: scooting around a stunning tropical island, meeting friendly craftspeople and giving them lots of money for beautiful things.  Then again, there are the torrential deluges which periodically catch us out far from home…

The first stop is our Timorese friend Victoria, and her great collection of tribal art.  We were sold out of her coconut tree masks before the end of last season, so this year we are getting more.  I will put a price list below, so anyone interested in reserving a specific piece can email us, and we will give more details and set it aside.  Victoria bali-goods2-003also had some new masks which caught our eye.  These come with the metal stand.

Next we dropped by Wayan.  Of all of our contacts, he is one of our favorites.  Like most Balinese, he seems to take life as if it was a ripe mango dropping, pealed, into his open mouth.  Yet for all of that, it 023hasn’t been as easy year for him, and the stress shows.  He is our umbrella and Balinese banner (umbal-umbal) man, and apart from running the shop he and his uncle do most of the sewing.  With a young family he is struggling to make ends meet, so our order, the biggest ever with him, came at a welcome time.  Apart from the whimsical banners (if you want rainbows, order now!) we are buying his hand-made 2m diameter patio umbrellas, as well as smaller decorative table top ones.

Southern Bali – from Ubud to Denpassar to Kuta – is an unbelievable road side shopping experience of small and medium-sized producers.  Apart from the sheer quantity of inventory, what is almost as stunning is how much dross there is.  After awhile you get repetitive craft 031disorder, and just can’t look at another identical coconut Buddha, and you wonder who can possibly be buying all those tacky maiden-in-a-rice-field paintings.  The same is true with the cast stone sculpture.  There is so much of it – and a lot of it isn’t bad – but the trick is to find a small business you like, and who does quality work on site.  After MUCH looking, we met Gus, who had beautiful pieces, and was able to walk us through the process in the workshop behind his tiny store front.

It’s similar with the metalwork.  We are buying lamps this year for the first time, and we 049sourced out Jero, who we like for her enthusiasm, and who makes everything in a small family business out back.

The last items we are shipping out of Bali are not easy to find; they aren’t in every second shop on the road side.  Maybe that’s why we love our New Guinea pieces – they were a lot of work!  One memorable day, trying to re-find a small shop with these amazing necklaces on the edge of Denpassar, we spent 4 hours fighting unbelievable traffic bali-goods2-011through the city.  I am crazy enough to consider city driving in Asia fun – you aren’t constrained by rules like “stay off the sidewalk” – but this was exhausting (literally).  We finally bailed out of the humidity and pollution to a small restaurant, who gave us some directions.  Back on another 6 lane horror show, after negotiating another chaotic intersection, my prized progressive lens glasses made a suicide leap out of my shirt pocket into the middle of traffic.  Miraculously, after we pulled over and ran back, they were still alive – until the last truck taking the corner scored a direct hit.  And we never did find the shop.

But now I know where it is, and we spent a lot of time with Kadek, and her near-neighbour 001Andi.  The necklaces are all wearable, but also come with the stand, and are displayable works of art.  Andi’s shields come from Jayapura, Irian Jaya, and could also conceivably be used in a skirmish/raid/war with your enemies.  Perhaps better just put them on the wall.  Kadek’s necklaces, she is honest enough to tell us, are made by her in Bali, in the Irian Jaya tradition – except for one style.  These elegant sculpures, called Kalabubu, come from Nias, off the coast of Sumatra.  Kadek is an expert, but she says people here lack the skill to reproduce them.  They are as smooth as bone or horn, which is what they look like, but they are actually polished discs of coconut shell, with a brass clasp.  She only had two, and we are keeping one bali-goods2-019for ourselves…

I am currently putting the new stock up on our website.  Please check it out by going to http://www.kebeandfast.com, go to “our store”, and look for these goods in “jewelry” and “arts and crafts”.  Below is a sample of what we have.  If you find something you love, please contact us by email about details, delivery and payment.  You can reach us at: sales@kebeandfast.com.

Terima Kasi,

Your Foreign Devil Correspondents

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Coconut tree mask from West Timor. @ 1m tall. $200

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Wooden mask with stand. @1m tall. $180

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Bali banner (umbal umbal) colours. 5m tall. $15 each, 6 for $50, 10 for $100.

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2m diameter waterproof patio umbrella. Available in yellow, teal, white and purple. $180.

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Table top umbrella. Available in orange, white, yellow and purple. $35

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Cast stone bust. 53cm on stand. $90.

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Buddha bust. 36cm on stand. $35.

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Cast stone Boddhisattva bust. 32 cm. on stand. $35.

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Metal and polyester standing lamp. 30cm tall. $35.

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Metal and polyester hanging globe lamp. 23cm tall. $35.

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Wooden shield from New Guinea. @1.3m tall. $120.

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Wooden shield from New Guinea. @1.3m tall. $120.

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Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $150

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Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $85

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Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $120

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Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $75

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Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $85

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Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $75

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Kalabubu necklace from Nias. One only. $250.

EL NIDO: Sky Blue Sea

El Nido: the name means “The Nest” in Spanish, and comes from the previously-dominant economy of this little town – the collecting of swallow’s nests.  It is actually the swallow saliva that is so highly prized for the main ingredient in that species-destroying delicacy, bird’s nest el-nido-photos-008soup, but “bird spit soup” sounds like a harder sell.

Tourism has long since overtaken bird spit in this town, but both industries rely on the same resource:  towering limestone cliffs.  The cliffs hem the town on one side (and are full of the caves from where the swallow nests are taken), and crumble away into Bacuit Bay to form a spectacular archipelago of karst islands.  It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world – and that’s without even diving into the gin-clear, coral-filled water – but, in truth, we had serious reservations about coming here.  Several good friends had been to El Nido before us: Martin and Blair almost 20 years ago; and Michel and Christine 2 years ago.  For Martin it was such a peak experience that he said he would actually kill us if we were on Palawan and didn’t go; Michel qualified his enthusiasm because of the tourist-saturation of Nido, and much prefered Port Barton for its authenticity.  Having followed Michel and Christine’s advice and found a perfect little world in Port Barton, (see the last blog) the question was whether to leave it for the big bad unknown of El Nido.

el-nido-photos-005While we were staying on Albaguen Is. outside Port Barton at Michael Damaso’s fabulous little resort, an interesting route to El Nido presented itself.  Instead of backtracking to Port Barton and the hideous road we had come in on, we could (in theory) cut 3 hours off the trip by taking a barca to the small town of San Vicente, and continue by bus from there.  We decided we owed it to Martin, and packed up, with many deep sighs.  The first 2 stages went according to plan: Michael’s boat took us as close as the low tide would allow to the Vicente jetty, and we waded in the final 20 meters, and a mini-bus dropped us at “junction”, where a Nido bus was supposed to pass at 9 a.m.  2.5 hours later, in the middle of a downpour, the bus finally showed up – packed.  Along with the 6 others waiting there we gamely piled in: in rural Asia there is no such thing as too full.  Katheryn took our hand luggage and was able to getel-nido-photos-006 some ways down the aisle.  I was the last one on, and carrying our 2 packs I was stuck in the door with the conductor.  With one arm I had to hold the packs, and with the other myself, from falling out the open door.  As the bus charged and banked into the mountain curves, it was like doing one-arm push-ups, and I resorted to (literally) using my head to brace on the door frame.  Katheryn had her knees up around her ears crouched on a rice sack when I had a chance to glance back.  She gave me an encouraging thumbs up.  Just before the “unbearable” point I had the conductor climb onto the side of the careening bus, in the pouring rain, and I leaned out with one hand and passed the packs to him, and he with one hand grabbed them and threw them on the roof.

Half of whether you like a place depends on the the place you stay, and El Nido didn’t start off elephants-003brightly.  But we put in the effort and ended up, in my opinion, with the best deal in town: the Hotel View Deck.  The owner, Rudi, is building his guest house on a property overlooking the the town and the bay, right across from the huge cliff where the swallow spit is harvested.  I say “is building” because although our cute suite was complete, he was still pouring concrete in a lower one which – his laugh is a little anxious – he has pre-booked for the high season starting in just 3 weeks.

The thing to do – and we almost never do “the thing to do” – in El Nido is take a boat tour.  The choices,  A, B or C, go to different spots around the bay and the islands.  After our rainy travel day, the morning dawns clear and sunny, and because we like Rudi we let him sign us up for tour A.  It is the cheapest tour – about $25 each including lunch – and the only one to go to Martin’s must-see place: the small lagoon on Miniloc Is.  I am a self-righteous, el-nido-photos-011pretentious snob when it comes to taking tours, and my mood isn’t improved when our promised boat load of “6 or 8” becomes 10, and then 12.  Then a large middle-aged German with his delicate teenage rent-a-girl gets on.  And then another Old Fart/young Filipina couple.  16 in all.

Our first stop is the small lagoon, and since it is the first stop for all “tour A’s”, there must be 8 boats like ours at anchor.  Over the side we go, masks and snorkels donned.  Like spawning salmon we head for the narrow cleft into the lagoon, the snorkelers, the swimmers, the waders, and the ones who should just be naturally-selected out of the gene pool, paddling with inflated plastic rings under their armpits.  Given that only one swimmer can go through the cleft at a time there is a line up, made worse by the natural-selectees holding up the process, so pleased with themselves that they have made it that they stop in the opening, completely oblivious.  Once inside, however…

el-nido-photos-019Once inside, however, is a place so sublime it evaporates my resistance, it transcends all our meager human clamour.  Vertical limestone walls, jungle-draped, eroded into fluted stems, enclose a pool of liquid opal.  We swim across the space into a scallopped recess, climb over a low natural barrier and slip into an emerald bath, floating on our backs beneath a hole of aquamarine sky.  For the first time we are alone, and get a glimpse of the proprietory magic you, Martin and Blair, must have felt 20 years ago.

I don’t know how long the rest of our boat had been waiting.  We are, probably by a long way, el-nido-photos-024the last ones back.  Next our outrigger glides, over a slide-rule sea, to our lunch spot on a small beach.  Small but perfect.  The water changes from Tanqueray to Bombay Sapphire as we approach, with a morel-shaped rock formation set there just for implausibility.  Our debonair boatman, Aleo, builds a fire against a cliff wall, and throws on chicken and fish.  By now our boat has bonded, although the neck-less one with his butterfly-on-a-pin makes everybody a bit queasy.

After lunch our boat cruises to a bay off Miniloc Is., which Aleo describes as a snorkeling spot.  The fun comes, however, when he jumps overboard with a scrap of lunch leftovers, and literally feeds the fish.  In the swimming pool water he is engulfed el-nido-photos-056my scores of chevron-striped Sgt. Majors.  I soon join him, and for the first time ever I laugh underwater, through my snorkel, as the gregarious fish nibble at the scrap in my hand, then my hand, and then the glass in from of my face.

In the end, we just can’t argue with a landscape this spectacular.  We had a great time, and give El Nido a thumbs up.  We just should have come 20 years ago…

For the full impact, feel as though you are there experience, watch this:http://youtu.be/ZXLVHI-_yAk or go to our flickr page (http://www. kebeandfast.com link at the top) and view the set as a slide show.

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Yuksom and Gorkhaland

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Sikkim has terrain as difficult to traverse as almost anywhere in the populated world: snowy passes and wild jungle-covered slopes plunging down to fast -flowing rivers.  Imagine it in the 17th C.  Then imagine the scene played out in a remote valley when one influential Buddhist misty-mountain-hdrLama and his small retinue completely by coincidence run into another respected teacher from the same school in Tibet!   They probably went off in different directions, in different years, and here they are in Yuksom.  Then who should appear from the only place that neither of them has been in the last few months, but another bearded lama from Tibet!  This, they all agree, is a very special sign indeed.  The local chieftain is happy to host and flatter his unlikely guests as they confer and chant and beat drums into the night. Finally all is clear: there will be a Buddhist Kingdom, the chieftain will be the Chogyal, the first ruler, and it’s capital will be Yuksom.

Yuksom today probably looks as unlikely a capital for a kingdom as it did in 1642.  It’s a dzo-portrait1beautiful town, just not very imperial.  The little traffic that there is on it’s one street has to make way for the dzo (yak/cattle hyrbids).  Each of the three wise lamas established a monastery there, and over the course of several days in Yuksom we visit all of them.  There isn’t all that much to do, which is one of the pleasures of the place.  The town is the starting point for Sikkim’s best-known trek – hence the pack-dzos – but we are far less ambitious than that.  The closest we get to mountaineering is the hike up to Dubdi Gompa, one of the three monasteries. It’s a delightful climb up through orchid-draped forest, and once again, as in Pemayangtse (last blog), a friendly local dog – wild-orchidsBuddy II – volunteers as our guide.  The main hall is locked when we arrive, but a monk calls the attendant on his cell phone and he lets us in.  Afterward we chat on a bench in the sun with the monk, who points out  a hill where the original monastary was.   It moved down here, the story goes, because of harassment by Yetis.

Gompa #2 is on a hill at the top of Yuksom’s main street, and #3 is a little further out of town at the spot where the first Chogyal’s coronation took place.  As per usual a new dog – Buddy III – shows us the way there.  We pass the small lake – draped with prayer flags – where the water for the ceremony was drawn from.  The “throne” itself – a stone bench – is massive-sacred-pineoutdoors under a massive cryptomeria pine.  With forests of prayer flags, moss-covered “mani” stones, some deserted temple buildings and Buddy III giving us “walkies”, it’s a wonderful afternoon.

It has turned rainy in Yuksom, which makes it easier to leave.  The only jeep out of here departs at 6:00 a.m. and follows a tortuous route through Tashiding and Legship to Jorethang.  Jorethang is on Sikkim’s southern border at only 600m and after the highlands it feels almost sultry.  It’s a brief blast, however, as we climb into the next jeep going to Darjeeling.  The distance is only 21 km, but it’s the back-door route to India’s best-known hill station, and the journey takes 2 1/2 hours and climbs 1700m.

fog-for-flickrThe first impression of Darjeeling is disappointing: a clogged, cachophonic street where we are dropped, grotty, smelly butcher shops and a grey, soupy cloud enveloping everything.  There is no way to make sense of Darjeeling from a map, since “up” and “down” are the important directions, but with a vague lead we have  of a recommended hotel near the “T.V. Tower”, we head off “up” into the fog, and eventually stumble across the Tranquility.  For the first time this trip we need to wear everything we own, and Katheryn even puts socks on her hands.  Sometimes the cloud parts and reveals glimpses of the valley and Jorethang far below, but mostly it is like being on a set of Jack the Ripper.

Virtually every business in Darjeeling pronounces itself as part of Gorkhaland.  We are officially in W. Bengal, the capital being Calcutta, but that it as foreign to here to Ethiopia, and everybody knows it.  There is a lot of antagonism to a perceived Bengali imperiousness, and for thirty years there has been a simmering conflict to form a separate state.  Things were more spinner-for-flickrviolent in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but even now there are two protest marches that we come across, and the ransacking of a separatist’s house that could possibly ignite  strikes and stone throwing.

Over the course of a few days in Darjeeling we make the acquaintance of A.K. Lama, the head monk at Bhutia Busty Monastery, and he directs us to the Tibet Relief Center, where crafts and rugs are hand-made.  But apart from that and fading snatches of the once-glorious British Raj there isn’t much to keep us here and we head down the mountain to Kalimpong.  It is there we come across the best British anachronism yet: the Himalayan Hotel.

Kalimpong sits on the easiest access route between Tibet and India.  In 1904 the British wanted to consolidate their control over this strategic territory, loosely controlled by Tibet, so they sent Col. Francis Younghusband and a small band of soldiers to the border to instigate an “incident” which would give them the excuse to retaliate and annex it.  The problem that after flopping around in vain for some time and finding no opposition, Younghusband set off up the himalayan-for-flickrroad to Lhasa.  His firepower routed Tibetan horse troops at Xigatse, and he created an international incident by matching into Lhasa unopposed. The translator on that adventure was David McDonald, who built himself a bungalow in Kalimpong which became The Himalayan.  Over the year this fusty sitting room of stone and Himalayan oak has hosted the great mountaineering expeditions of Mallory and Irwin, Hillary and Tenzin, and an almanac of personalities and explorers.   Add to that  Kebe and Fast, who speak in studied snooty tones and drink G&Ts below the deen-dayal-for-flickrsigned photo of Alexandra David-Neel.

You know where to find more great photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

And be sure nor to miss Katheryn’s latest video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5fM9aeQoq8

SIKKIM: Under Kangchendzonga

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The border crossing into India is another of those little outposts which you feel represents banishment for the official working there.  Mr. L.A. Wadhia fusses irritably with the

Katheryn crossing the border

Katheryn crossing the border

“wrong”  answers on our forms (Port of Disembarkation?; flight number?):  he has the inner numbness of someone who has spent far too long taking what he knows to be ridiculous, seriously.

The stamp is officiously given,  and we are ushered by a hovering tout from there into a jeep (actually the Indian version: the Tata Sumo) going to the town of Siligiri, and then directly into another to Gangtok, Sikkim.  The good thing about traveling by jeep is that they fill up at the departure point, and don’t (usually) stop for additional riders until the destination.  The bad thing is the passengers are squeezed in tight, and except for the front seat have a limited view of the scenery.  Wejungle are, unfortunately, right in the back, and the scenery, as we ascend the valley of the Testa River, is amazing.

Sikkim is an Indian state tucked up between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan – how  can you go wrong with that?  With China demanding expensive and restrictive conditions on travel to Tibet, and Bhutan imposing a $200/day/person fee on a visit there, Sikkim appears to be our only oppurtunity to explore the area.  A special permit is required to enter Sikkim, but we obtain that relatively hassle-free at the border at Rangpo, while our jeep waits.  From there the road slithers dramatically onward and upward.  Rays of sun dice through a lush jungle of tree ferns, giant bamboo and flowering broad-leaves, and the river is frothing white far below.  winding-road-gangtok-to-pellingGangtok should really be approached by horse-caravan slowly ascending the ancient stone-paved trade route; we are 100 years too late for that.  The constant low-gear jostling to overtake crawling diesel lorries around dusty washed-out hair-pin corners may diminish the romance, but the trip from Siligiri now only takes five hours.

One hundred years ago Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom ruled by a dynasty called the Chogyals.  The British had duplicitously lopped off territory including Darjeeling from their southern flank, but the Chogyals held their own against pressure from China, and the Raj, until Indira Gandhi’s India banished them in 1975 on the instigation of the now-majority Hindu population.  We are sitting in the garden of a hill-top monastery while a monk tells us this history. He is ethnically a Bhutia, who along with the Lepchas migrated from Tibet and brought Buddhism with them.  There still is, he says, a lot of resentment against India over the banishment of the Chogyal, who is now in Bhutan, and tension between the Bhuddist and Hindu populations occassionally flares into violence.  Like many of the “Tibetans” we talk to, he makes a face when we ask if he has travelled in the rest of India, and waves his hand as if getting rid of a bad smell.

And it really feels – especially with the permit formalities at the border – that we are in a gangtokdifferent country.  Gangtok, we concur, is the most pleasant Indian state capital that we know.  For one thing it is spread along a steep ridge at 1700 m, and from our balcony we have a clear view of the presence that dominates this entire state: Khangchendzonga, at 8,208 m the third highest mountain in the world.  Gangtok also has that most blessed and rare feature in a country over-run with vehicles and bullied by drivers with an incessant hand on the horn – a long pedestrian mall at the center of town.  But even better, the people are without exception sophisticated, kind, friendly and charming, and it doesn’t take long before we are in love.  Many Bengali tourists come up here from the plains for a cool-weather vacation, and where there are Bengali tourists there is great food.  Every masala dosa, every hot tandori roti taken with a view out across the valley – after the basic fare in Nepal – is a rapture.  It takes four days before Katheryn is able to walk the steep streets without wincing from her back injury, but we are happy to just rest up here after what seems like a lot of hard travel.

group-shot-of-the-flower-giving-kidsThe view is great from Gangtok, but the place to go for the real vista is Pelling, 110 km away, which means 6 hours by jeep.  One again it’s a mad spaghetti road through jungle and mountain, but the highlight has to be the rest-stop in Ravangla, where a group of kids run after us shouting “Auntie, Uncle, wait!”, and press bouquets of marigolds on us.

We get a room in Pelling where we don’t even have to roll out of bed for a sensational view.  The morning coffee on the balcony is perhaps the most spectacular we have ever had.  As if that wasn’t enough, a 1.5 km stroll deity-at-pemayangtseaway is Pemayangtse Gompa, one of Sikkim’s oldest monasteries, built in 1705.  The “Perfect Sublime Lotus” Gompa is probably as close as we will come to Tibet for now, so Marguerite, this one is for you.  There is no photography allowed inside the main gompa, but the walls are covered with 300-year-old paintings of deities, gurus and demons from the Nyingmapa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and energetically-depicted statues of  Buddha and the Rimpoches are behind glass at the back.   The wooden floors are worn smooth under our bare feet and the smell of butter lamps and incense permeate the timbers.  By the thin light of the deeply-recessed windows we climb a creaky staircase to the upper level, where a deep drum interspersed clashing cymbals has been playing since we entered.  The drummer is in a room behind a curtain, so we sit on a ledge in an adjoining room and feel the vibrations pulse through the walls, the floor and ourselves.

buddy-and-chorten-at-rabdentse-ruinsThe second capital of the Chogyals is now just a ruin that can be seen on the spur of a hill just below the monastery, and we make friends with a pretty dog in the grounds who seems to want to guide us there.  Much of the route is through a forest reserve, where massive climbing ferns 10 feet high cascade down to the path.  Only thick stone walls remain from the old capital, but with soaring views in all directions including, of course, Khanchangdzonga you understand why they built here.

All of India is on one time zone, and as far east as we are it gets dark early, around five o’clock.  And at 2100 m, in November, when it gets dark it gets cool.  We get dressed up for the evening in long johns and down jackets, and head out to our new-found favorite tongbaplace for a tongba.  “Tongba” is a large pile of fermented millet served in a wooden tankard.  Hot water is poured on top, and the milky, slightly sour potion is sipped through a bamboo straw.  Tongba is found where ever Tibetans are throughout the Himalaya and it warms, rehydrates and gives a mild alcoholic buzz.  We find a delightful Tonga spot in Pelling, called the “Step Down” restaurant.  A dark stairway descends off the road into a room made out of rough planks with three rickety tables.  The only window has no glass, just a curtain of aging cloth.  The kitchen fills with locals and laughter and warm light, and our matron brings us the big wooden tankards with, possibly, the best tongba we have had yet.  The power fails and candles come out and I’ll happily take the Step Down any day.

For all of the latest videos, go to youtube and search for kebeandfast to see all the choices.

There are lots more great photos – and this time I’m not joking – by going to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

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NEPAL: FOR THE LOVE OF PAVEMENT

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The unstoppable force of India collides with the immovable mass of China and Nepal is the balloon squeezed between the two.  The pushing continues:  the Himalaya are still fracturing upward and the government is still simply fractured by the impact of it’s giant neighbours.  The China-supported Maoists won an election in 2008, but intractable issues with the India-backed Congress Party made governing impossible, and the only hope was that a new constitution would lay the groundwork for a return to normalcy.   Now the negotiations over the constitution are in a deadlock, there is no functioning legislature, and no end is in sight. But actually, most people barely notice.

Sure, civic functions like garbage collection are sporadic;  the plastic bags of refuse discarded on the street when we arrived are still there days later, mashed into the potholes by traffic and picked over by dogs, cows and crows.   Our friend Malik ringsexplains that the garbage collectors are from the villages and in the Maoist camp, and if they don’t want to work no one will make them, and they have all taken two weeks off for the holiday of Dusain.

Our timing, in that regard, is very fortunate.   We arrive at the tail-end of Dusain, and our jewelery-makers are drifting back in from the villages,  so our orders can get started.   Everybody knows about the increase in the price of gold this last year;  the same is true of other metal.   Copper, tin and zinc are all more expensive, and silver had increased 50%.   This means we are buying a lot less silver jewelery, and a lot more copper, brass, and  “white metal”  (steel, aluminum, and – Malik shrugs his shoulders – whatever they have).   We still manage,  of course,  to get some extraordinary pieces, including lots more styles of rings,  and some very dramatic Afghani-style cuffs.   And singing bowls.   Our most popular bowls last year were singing-bowlsthe antique  “thado-bhuti”,  which come from the Tibetan border regions and are,  according to the famous Tuladhar brothers,  Ishwor and Suman,  up to 100 years old.   We spend a morning in an ancient room in the old city of Kathmandu with Ishwor,  each one of us in turn handling the bowls and making them sing and selecting from his stock 30 of the thado-bhuti,  based on their tone and quality.   They will be a little more expensive than last year,  but if you pre-order from us now we will reserve them at the old price.   Drop us an email if you are interested.

When all our orders are done,  Malik suggests we make an outing to Nagarkot,  which is a village on a ridge outside of Kathmandu with a glorious vista of the terraced foot-hills set against the snow-capped Langtang Himal.  We leave the city dark-peakson the road that leads to China.  Now it is a horribly dusty construction zone of constant pot-holed diversions – but soon it will be Nepal’s only four-lane divided highway.   Geo-politically,  you could probably read something into building a free-way to China, and leaving the road to India – the one we will take tommorow – to rot.

Kathmandu holds a special place in our affections, but it is still a noisy, polluted Asian city, and we are craving something a little less frantic.   Rather than head into the mountains – the destination of almost all of this year’s bumper-crop of tourists – we journey down to the plains to an area of forest and rice-fields bordering India known as the Terai.   The famous destination here is Chitwan National Park,  home to a dwindling population of tiger, elephant and one-horned rhino.   I have a disabling aversion to group tourist activities,  so I am confined to the hotel while Katheryn has a wonderful time riding group2into the park on the back of an elephant named Circli,  even though her party doesn’t see any major wildlife.   What we can both do, however,  is rent bicycles and explore the beautiful surrounding villages where the rice harvest is in full swing.

If the main road from Kathmandu to India – which takes us by Chitwan Park – is bad,  the road east across Nepal is legendary.   Granted,  much has been paved since the bad old days,  and the journey has been reduced from unbearable to merely uncomfortable.   We decide to take two days to do the 440 km,  breaking half- way at Janakpur.   We leave Sauraha early the first morning,  advised that the best way to get from the village to the main highway is by horse cart.   That seems reasonable,  except that no horse carts appear,  and we are forced to make bad puns about falling into a trap.   Eventually a curious pick-up driver stops and we negotiate a ride with him.   Getting transport mid-route is always a bit of a risk, since buses  generally arrive full, and carrying our luggage as we are it is difficult to get on and hope to secure a seat.   Janakpur is waiting-for-our-busalso an unusual destination, and after flagging a couple of buses to a halt and getting no satisfaction we decide to go 20 km the OTHER way,  to the major town of Narayangarh, and hope to get something from a terminus.   Instead we are dumped at a noisy junction in the middle of town.   It always happens,  though,  that when you simply throw yourself into the sub-continent,  you are taken care of.   Someone asks us where we are going and leads us to a Nepali-labeled hole of an office,  and someone else sells us a ticket to Janakpur,  leaving at 10.   There is enough time to go for a bite at a simple place next door,  and Katheryn gets entertained by a young girl intent on dancing for her while simultaneously reciting the English alphabet.   Then someone grabs our bags and runs off announcing our bus has arrived.   The bus is packed, but two seats are cleared for us,  and with our bags in the aisle getting climbed over by the standing passengers we head off. Only the last part of the trip, 7 hours later, is really bad.  That’s  when the pavement has disappeared and we are bucked off our seats as the driver takes on the potholes as if they are trolls in a video game.  Then again,  Katheryn reminds me of the part where the rest-stop is just the side of the road,  and she has to squat partially-concealed by some bushes as a group of curious cyclist ride past.   Or the part where she has to hand our bags out the window to finally get stowed properly and wrenches her back in the process.

And so it is, with Katheryn barely able to walk in the morning, that we prepare for the next leg,  to Karkabitta,  on Nepal’s eastern border.   The bus packed-busoriginates in Janakpur at least,  but at first glance it doesn’t inspire confidence.   It’s been twenty years since anyone cared what the interior looked like, and the cushion on our wooden plank bench is so ragged I pick up the whole thing and change it with another that is marginally better.   We are right behind the driver,  which allows Katheryn to brace herself on the wheel well,  but the speakers from the stereo are six inches from my head,  and we spend most of the trip wearing earplugs.   It’s not everybody’s idea of fun,  but it’s what we do,  and I love the fact that we are in a relatively remote and beautiful part of the world surrounded by people who accept our presence here with so much hospitality,  and there is a price to be paid for that privilege.   Katheryn, as always,  maintains her sense of humour, and coins two apt phrases:  ” He’s got balls of nerves”  as the bus holds the ribbon of asphalt for as long as possible against oncoming traffic;  and the immortal ” For the Love of Pavement!”

Be sure not to miss these videos of the experience:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF3pdGGMUsk;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY_9P1-0xcw; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfY_eIA94I0; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IxYz1Lwbpc; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JP6ZGem87Oo.  Or just go to youtube and search for kebeandfast to see all the choices.

And there are lots more photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

BANGKOK: PLEASE KEEP CLEANING

kathmandu-skyline
The sprawling city of Kathmandu outside my window, a crazy quilt of flat-roofed five-story buildings lapping up against the green hills surrounding the valley. But it doesn’t seem any more real than any number of places we have been in the last few aubry-st1weeks. If I stop to think about them, I can re-create every sensation of a gusty wind tossing falling elm leaves across the street where my sister lives in Winnipeg; or the last serving of summer on flat-calm English Bay as Michel drives us to the airport; or the humid smell of the stairwell of a cheap hotel in Bangkok enhanced by long-haul flight sleep deprivation. That is the nature of the moment: it slides back into the glass and becomes a memory even as you raise it to your lips to taste it.
As anyone who has prepared for a long trip and has to sub-let their place knows, the title of this blog isn’t only about the quirky sign in that damp, spit-stained stairway in Bangkok. In fact, Katheryn started the clean-up almost as soon as the sale season ended. Sometimes it seems like the best part of the trip is when we have checked our bags and are through security and are at the departure gate and everything is DONE! In the same way that there is a Law of Nature that states you will fill all available space in your pack, you will also fill all available time before you leave. I call it the Law of Just Enough; ten minutes before Michel arrives to drive us past the last bit of summer on English Bay, we are still sweeping floors and shutting drawers.
But then we are boarded, and we taxi, and we are filled with that marvelous rush of our-747power as the jet engines thrust our nose into the sky. The landing gear retracts and the next few minutes are the “Bardo” of air travel – that in-between state described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead – where the noise of lift-off has gone and the aisles are quiet since the flight attendants are still buckled down and even the babies are too surprised to cry. We bank to the north and point out all the territory we spent the last six months covering – the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island on the left; Bowen and the Sunshine Coast on our right. Within minutes we are over Cortes and Marina Island. The pilot flies low and dips his wings; Brent, did you catch it? For the next 16 hours flying time we futilely chase the sun. There is an unbelievable amount of mountainous frozen wilderness on the flight path from Vancouver to Bangkok.
It is midnight local time when we land in Bangkok. We have traveled 15,000 kilometers. Both these facts are meaningless to my body and my brain, which have only one insistent command: find a bed. And so it is, after sharing a taxi from the airport with Heidi, a woman from Kamloops heading to Bhutan to go trekking, that in bangkok-nepal-2010-0071that deliciously pungent florescent-lit humidity sailing on the strength of a third, or fourth wind, I am commanded – politely – to continue cleaning.
The last time we were in Bangkok, of course, the streets were a battleground between soldiers and protesters. Many people asked us before we left how things are now, and we honestly didn’t know. It doesn’t take long on our first morning to notice one casualty – tourism. Hotels are empty and businesses are hurting. Over the next few days the feeling of a battered and bruised city is re-enforced. There is a recurring pessimism in the people we talk to, more deeply troubling coming from a culture ingrained to put on a smiling face. There is a lack of the vibrancy that we love; bullet pock marks in the buildings and even piles of sand bags are still there, as if there isn’t the energy to clean them up, or a sense that to do so is futile. In the north there had been record rainfall and here in the city people are bracing for the coming – real and metaphorical – flood.
What can you do? : don’t spit; keep cleaning.

Check out these videos of the trip:Vancouver to Bangkok via Hong Kong

A quick Bangkok minute

And apologies for the delay in sending our the first blog: several upload attempts failed due to poor connections in Nepal.

BALI: Umbul alert

Before you place your advance orders for Balinese umbul-umbul (temple banners) we will take you far from this equatorial island back to a chilly morning in Kathmandu.

It is pre-dawn, and we are flying through town in a taxi, apparently to the Eden petrol pump.  This is the first step in a long sequence of events that will all have to synchronize over the next five days in order for us to make pre-booked train and plane connections to get to Bali, and at the moment it is looking a little dodgy.  Our driver is finishing the night shift, and is charged on speed and red bull.  He comes to screeching halts to ask for directions.  At one point Katheryn gasps when there is a thump and a creature goes hurtling over the bumper.  Katheryn thinks it is a school girl but it is only a pigeon.

When we get out I am still dubious we are even at our destination.  We have booked seats in a Sumo – an Indian-made jeep – to the border town of Birganj, but all we have to prove it is a scrap of paper which reads “Govinda Gee. Opp. Eden Petrol Pump”.  Our driver picks the pigeon off the grill, retrieves our packs, and speeds off.  We are on a congested, dusty, ugly down-trodden stretch of road on the east side of Kathmandu, where buses, mini-vans and jeeps all stop and shout and vie for passengers.  Touts grab our precious piece of paper, study it, and direct us one way or another, and in this fashion we arrive at the office of Govinda Gee.  By 7 AM, our supposed departure time, it looks like there is a consensus that we have seats on a Sumo, and by 8 we are underway.

The arrangement is less than luxurious, but tolerably; we are in the front, the seat is worn out, and Katheryn has to sit with the stick shift between her knees.  It gets worse when we hit the “new highway” which at this point is a 4-WD track through the mountains.  It’s first and second gear all the way and some of the hairpins are so steep that the tires spin and throw rocks as we make the corner.  However, we make it to Birganj in a mere 5.5 hours, a trip that by local bus can take more than 12.

Some of you may remember our famous “Escape from Birganj” story three years ago, when we were caught here by rioting and curfew, and had to sneak out past road blocks at 4AM.  We find a room at the same hotel that we stayed at then – The Everest – and congratulate ourselves on the success of Step One.

Step Two starts the next morning, and involves crossing the border into India.  This should be fairly straightforward, but India recently (8 weeks ago) changed its rule on multi-entry visas, basically rendering ours void. It took an entire day at the Indian consulate in Kathmandu, more money, and a half-inch stack of photo-copied documents to get permission to cross this border, and the lone office working out of a derelict shed here still isn’t sure about it.  He tells us we are the first people in our position to have the authorization to enter since the rule came into effect – everyone else he has sent back to Kathmandu.

The next step is to get on the 10AM train to Calcutta; again, normally a routine operation we’ve done one thousand times, but now, even though we booked berths a month ago, we still aren’t confirmed.  What we have is a berth between us “R.A.C.” – Reserved Against Cancelation – which means someone down the line has to drop out in order for both of us to have a bunk.  A businessman opposite has managed to squeeze his daughter, wife, and mother-in-law into one bunk – against the rules – and laughs when I say they should add another AC sleeper car.  “I’m surprised there is a train at all! I’m surprised there is a road at all! All they used to have here was oxcarts!”  And it’s true: we are in the notoriously-poor, lawless part of India, Bihar, where even motorized transport can’t be taken for granted.  Fortunately the seating situation gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and the Maoist insurgents don’t blow up the tracks, as they have been prone to do.

Our scheduled arrival time in Calcutta is 4AM.  We will the train to be late, and succeed, and arrive at 9.  The rest of the trip: flight to KL; overnight; flight to Bali is hardly worth mentioning. We are even picked up at the airport by our friend Peter, and driven to a hotel – with a swimming pool – that he has booked for us: that’s how easy this has become!  However we have come a long way from Kathmandu, 46 hours of travel in 5 days, which leads us to the umbul-umbul.

Thanks to everyone from the last blog, by the way, who made a request for some of our Nepali  treasure.  The response was great but there’s still lots left in case you’re just now getting around to thinking about it.

If you visited any of our sales last year, you probably noticed our tall, elegant banners outside. These are Balinese umbul – ceremonial banners – and there was so much interest in them that we constantly regretted that we only had our five display pieces.  Now we have agreat source for them in Wayan, umbul, umbrella, and ceremonial cloth maker.  They are all 5 meters tall and will retail at our sales for $16. We are stocking the colours you see in the photo (for a bigger image double click it) although quite a few (we cleaned out Wayan’s stock) are in limited numbers.  As a special offer* and if you order NOW they are on sale for 5 pieces for $60 or 10 for $100.  Keep in mind how charming they would be at all those parties, weddings or special events coming up this summer.  If you are interested, let us know by email:  katheryn@kebeandfast.com and we will set aside your selection.  When we are back in Canada in the middle of April, we will contact you about payment and delivery details.

*It is the Nyepi festival here tomorrow, Bali’s famous “Do Nothing Day”, when everything, including the international airport is closed, and no one goes outside, turns on the power, or anything.  More on that later.

Here are some of the videos from Nepal.  Check them out!

Boudinath, the stupa of the relic

The Better Road Movie

and soon to be a classic Bad Road Movie

also TONGBA! is a lot of fun

and there are two more cityscapes: Durbar Square, Patan and Kathmandu

VARANASI: A DIP IN THE RIVER

The big story in India this January is the ‘Cold Wave’. Everybody knows the daily low temperature, how much it is below average, and the grim statistical death-count it has caused (643 and counting) . The cold moist air that comes down from the Himalayas creates a huge fog bank across the northern plains every evening as the temperature drops. Depending on conditions and where you are, the fog lingers into the afternoon, or doesn’t lift at all. Every year this throws transportation schedules into utter chaos. One couple we met waited 12 hours on the platform in Calcutta, and then learned their train was cancelled. We have been fortunate: both overnight trains we have had have been pretty much on time. But enduring the fog and cold is another matter.

The way the railway lines run mean we don’t arrive directly in Varanasi from Calcutta, but at a junction called Mughal Serai. Mughal Serai is a rubbish pit of a town, and one of my least favorite places in India. The clamour of drivers trying to get us into their auto for the 13 km trip to Varanasi starts as soon as we hit the platform, and increases in volume and decreases in price the further into the station we get. The ruse is to get you into the vehicle at any price, and then put up such a fuss at the destination that you give them more . The benefit of arriving from Mughal Serai – in the morning at least – is that we get dropped at the end of the bridge over the Ganges River, and hire a boat to row us the final 2 km to our guest house.

We are wrapped up in all the clothing we have to guard against the morning chill, and bundle into the bow of a wooden dory. It ‘s a huge relief as our boatman, Muna, pulls away from the hassle and hustle of the road. All that jarring cacophony is replaced by the rhythmic squawk of the rope oarlocks, and the yammering gulls trailing a neighboring boat who are throwing them snacks. The fantastic curve of the river fades into the fog as we slowly row towards the place called both The City of Light and The City of Death. It is a timeless vista: on our left the bank is completely deserted; on the right stone steps continue the rise from the river into an idiosyncratic geometry of palaces, temples and houses. A beautiful scene unfolds as we near our landing, Scindia Ghat: washer women are holding up long lengths of bright sarees to dry, forming a multi-coloured mandala.

Our business begins later that day as it always does: with warm greetings and sweet chai. Everyone is seated on the floor wrapped in balaclavas and blankets, and we are in down jackets. With the new moon approaching, we are told, there is a conjunction of three events: the kite festival, Maha Sankrati; the festival of Mauni Ama Vaysa ; and a solar eclipse. The kite festival traditionally marks the end of the cold season, but this year there is no end in sight. Our host Ajit, as a responsible member of the community, has already given 100 blankets to the poor. His mother, he says, has made it known that no one who comes will be sent away without one, so porters are constantly coming in with more bundles. In between this philanthropy piles of silk scarves are unfurled at our feet, and bed spreads, and cushion covers, and tea is served, and food, and more tea.

No work takes place on Maha Sankrati – everyone is flying kites. The next day is the new moon, and with the festival and a solar eclipse it is a major event. Where we are the eclipse will only be partial, but it is still regarded as ill-omened. Most businesses are closed, and the superstitious will require purification rituals afterwards. Since the Ganges is perceived as the ultimate purifier, it is a big day at the ghats. Many of the crowd are villagers from the surrounding area, and they have been gathering since morning. An important part of the ritual of this festival is the giving of alms. Professional beggars, snake handlers, the handicapped and the poor line most of the approaches to the river, and receive, typically, a sprinkling of special rice, “khichori”, from the pilgrims. After their dunk in the river, many worshipers also leave their clothes behind to be picked through later. Ajit tells us that some of the wealthy even leave gold bangles and Rolexes behind. It is also a day to give clothing to the poor of an untouchable caste, and they walk through the streets of the old city, making their request with a half-sung half-shouted rhyming verse. By the time the moon has moved away from the sun – about 2:30 – there are tens of thousands of people along the banks of the Ganges River. More are ferried in over-packed launches to the other side, a wide sand bank, where it is much easier to get into the water. We have left the impossibly –congested ghats for the space afforded by a boat. From this perspective the crowd changes from a collection of individuals – some singing, some dressing, some just waiting – into a single flowing creature, a river in itself. This is India, and the river and the city and the country always has something more to throw at you. As we are rowed along in front of the worshipers, the body of a young boy floats past – the boatman has to raise his oar to avoid it. He is face down, and there will be no answers to who he was or where he came from. It is a startling sight, but I have to think of it as the boatman does: meaningless, now that the life is gone; more matter, returning to the water, the earth, or the fire. So life goes on. And so much life goes on that there is no time to pause; the crowd chants, and surges, and submerged in the water purification is given.

The other topic, besides the “Cold Wave”, that everybody is talking about is the “Price Increase”. It came up in Calcutta, when I was negotiating for a leather bag, and the dealer’s first line was “sugar is twice as expensive!”. In Varanasi it is the same: cotton is forty percent more than last year; and silk yarn has gone from 1600/rupees a kilo to 2400. Everyone is pointing fingers, but in general it comes down to two things. One is good: a general increase in wealth in the country. And one is bad: hoarding by speculators, and the newly-created futures market for agricultural commodities. The merchants that we deal with in India operate on small margins, but have always been (like us) very reluctant to raise their prices. This year they have no choice, and we willingly pay them more. In the case of one of the products most dear to us, the price has increased almost 40%. These are the silk scarves and shawls from Varanasi that we call in our display “Simply the finest hand weaving we can find”. They are extremely beautiful, intricate hand-woven silk made by a Muslim community outside the city. When we started buying them eight years ago, there were over 70 weaves making them.  Because of our special relationship, the price remained unchanged until this year, even though the art is dying out. This year there are only 12 weavers left, and with the price of silk at record levels, the increase was unavoidable. We have decided to keep our price the same, on these masterpieces for one more year. But this is your last chance! After this, they may not be available, at any cost.

For a video of the festival, check out this:Mauna Festival

You can see more of our Varanasi videos: The Boatman Rows us to the City of Death , Silk and ChaiGadaulia Crossing and Our Front Yard (and they are getting better all the time!) or all of them by going to youtube, and searching for: kebeandfast

There are, of course, lots of photos on flickr.  Just go to our website: http://www.kebeandfast.com and click the flickr link.

THAILAND: THE WAY OF KOH TAO

Hin Wong Bay from K&F HQ

We are on Hin Wong Bay, on the island of Koh Tao, in southern Thailand, and we have decided that this is a good location for the Kebe and Fast Company winter headquarters.  There is no internet, no phone, no mail, barely a road – so, perfect!  If you want to contact us, please come to bungalow #8.  It’s the farthest one up the path, if you bungalow #8 don’t count the one next to it which the owner says is haunted, and they never rent out.

We came to Koh Tao looking for that elusive beach experience that is getting almost impossible to find in Thailand: great location; cheap accommodation; good food; and NO TRANCE MUSIC ALL NIGHT.  Hin Wong happens to be all of the above, but the big revelation we have discovered is that we don’t actually like beaches.  OK, I’ll qualify that: Radha Nagar on Havelock Is. in the Andamans is great.  And a long scimitar of white sand backed by lazy palm trees and a breathless blue sea is a stereotype for paradise.  Nevertheless the reality is often a little different.  For one thing, if you have found that prototype of a tropical beach, chances are that the developers have as well.  Sai Ri beach on the west side of Koh Tao is a case in point.  No one can deny it is pretty, but all along its entire two km length it is non-stop bars and clubs and dive shops and hotels.  And the other thing about beaches: sand.  That fine powdery white stuff you have come so far to find gets everywhere, until you and everything you own are just variously-shaped bits of emery paper.The Beach

The grains at Hin Wong, on the other hand, are about the right size: the smallest are like a washing machine.  You definitely don’t track them into your sheets at night.  And while your expensive beach-front place at Sai Ri buys you a view of a lot of Scandinavians walking by mostly NOT looking great, at Hin Wong we have an unimpeded jungle-covered slope down to the turquoise waters of the bay.  It’s a good place for K to get all of our summer advertising work done.

Day at the officeAnother good thing is that there is only power from 6:30 pm until early morning.  This gives K a maximum of about 4 hours of battery time on the laptop, and then we have to do something else, like go snorkeling.  Koh Tao is an international diving hot-spot, and in fact issues more PADI certifications than anywhere else in the world.  We, as snorkelers, are the scooter riders of the underwater biker community, but the scenery off of our rocks doesn’t make us feel second class.  We spend much of the day swimming around our 3-dimensional screen-saver of a reef.  Next time I’ll come with a water-proof camera, and show you just how beautiful it is.  clear water

Right now it is 2pm, and the cicadas are buzzing in the heat so loud it sounds like feed-back from an electric guitar.  There are probably only 3 or 4 of the large beetles in the palm trees around us, but we can’t talk over the noise.  There is actually a lot of insect life going on around us.  Between myself and K, 3 feet away, is a hive of tiny wild bees.  They are wonderful neighbours, going about their business industriously from their home in our porch wall.  Although they often bump into us – we sit, work and eat right in their flight path – they never bite or sting.   Up until the full moon the insect activity around the lights at night wasn’t too bad, and we could comfortably sit inside our bungalow with all the doors full moon and windows open.  The night after, however, there were such swarms around the bulbs that in the restaurant Soe, the owner, was scooping them away with a mixing bowl.  There was a definite spike of activity that night, but it hasn’t been the same since.  Now we have to close our door before we turn on the light, which still didn’t stop a beetle the size of a hamburger patty from trying to smash it down.

For more (and more) shots of cerulean waters, go to http://www.kebeandfast.com and click EXPLORE.

Signing off from winter HQ, Koh Tao

Your Foreign Devil Corespondent

HOW GREEN IS MY BALI

the Tirta Gangga valley

After our first night in Bali, it seems cruel we’ve only booked 8 days here. Part of the reason for the short amount of time is past history. Katheryn fled Indonesia during the implosion of 1997, when the odious Suharto regime was in its death-Gunung Agungthrows, and taking the country down with it. People were rioting for food, atrocities were being committed against the Chinese and Christians (often the same thing; and often the scapegoats when things went bad), the Australian army was air-lifting their nationals out of the country, and the currency was close to being worthless. It was a traumatic time. A similar but bloodier scenario brought Suharto into power in 1965. I was only 4 at the time, but my family, who were living in Java, also had to flee the terrible circumstances. I went back in early 1982. At the time Kuta Beach was a quiet back-packer haunt, Legian was a separate village, and Ubud didn’t have any Italian restaurants. K had warned me it would Peter talking to Canadabe a shock to go back, so we have, over the years, left it off of our itinerary.

The added incentive this year is to visit our friend Peter, who after many years of keeping one foot in Canada and one foot in Bali, decided to stay in the tropics for the long term. There is absolutely no one better qualified to guide us through the sprawling warren that is now south Bali. Peter meets us at the airport in a rented jeep, and deftly negotiates the chaotic traffic all the while giving us a running commentary in his inimitable manner. Sure, development has transformed everything beyond recognition from 27 years ago, but the resulting fusion of western cash and Balinese creativity has resulted in a dynamic culture that Peter communicates with enthusiasm. Everywhere there is evidence of an advanced design aesthetic unlike anywhere else in Asia, an attention to detail in houses, hotels and restaurants. At the same time there is a scruffy-dog anarchy that appeals to me. Vendors and markets spill onto the streets, and Peter takes us to a little beach front bar that is just a bamboo shack planted in the sand. With our cold Bintangs we have a clear view all the way along the coast from Legian to Kuta, to the airport and beyond. This little bar is a hold-out from another era, as virtually the entire stretch is high-end (and beautifully-designed hotels), with their orchid gardens and water features.  The good news is that the hotels, while high-end, aren’t high rise.  Balinese cultural integrity has been the saving grace, preventing this from looking like Waikiki beach. When development began in the ’50’s, the Balinese declared that no building was to exceed the hieght of the palm trees. True, some builders have taken a poetic interpretation of how tall a palm tree grows, but there are only two glaring blights; a shopping mall and a hotel.  Both, of course,  are the projects of corruption at the highest level, and are unintentional statements of how ugly the mind behind taste of adventurethat kind of power is.

Peter arranges a motorbike rental for us, which is essential since his place is out on the edge where urban sprawl meets rice fields. For the next couple of days we are given the insiders tour of the restaurants and shops of Bali. Whether it’s a warung meal for .70 cents or splashing out on tuna fettuccine for $3, the food is outstanding. Although our budget for commercial goods is used up, we wanted to scout out Bali for future possibilities. The sheer number of handicraft stores is mind boggling.  There are literally miles of storefront selling carvings, antiques, furniture, jewellry and W.H.Y.  Apart from the tourists, dealers have been coming here for decades, although according to Peter virtually everything is made on Java. This is certainly true with the textiles, although we find many pieces from Sumba and Flores as well. We spend half a day in the cloth market in Denpasar, and are fortunate enough to meet Supriadi and his daughter Farhana. They are from Malang, in east Java, where I spent my childhood, and this connection is maybe why they give us the straight goods and the “harga bihasa’, the ‘real price’. We end up buying as many sarongs from them as we can carry on our bikes.  Batik, of course, is an Indonesian word for the famous resist-dye process of applying wax to cloth. Although not a dead art, hand made batik is now mostly a high-end artisan-produced specialty. Most merchants will try to con you with either the very cheap “batik prints”- easily detectable because only one side has vibrant colour – or “machine batik”. These are actually true batik, except that the wax pattern application is done mechanically, and are impossible to distinguish from the hand made article- for me, anyway- except that each pattern is identical in every detail. In the end, the sourcing experience in Bali has made me appreciate even more the quality and the diversity of the hand-made culture in India.

Even though the bike is only a little 110 cc step-through Honda, it has enough power to carry K. and me and our temple in Ubudpared-down pack – which sits between my knees – on a short tour of the island. In fact everything is so beautiful we don’t end up going very far. The first stop is Ubud – a short jaunt inland – which has been a magnet for ex-pat artists since the ’30’s. Many foreigners have continued to settle here, and it is easy to see why. Ubud is built around a number of steep ravines and river valleys. Some of the most stylish view from our room, Ubudboutique hotels in Asia are built into the lush green slopes and we voyeuristically wander into some just to look around. The staff see through our grubby gear right away, but are always smiling and gracious. The great thing about Ubud is we can get a chi-chi room for economy rates. Peter shows us to a real gem: lovely gardens, a swimming pool, lotus pond, with our room individually set into the jungle above one of the rushing water courses – for $14! Again we curse ourselves for not budgeting more time here. It’s almost a blessing that for much of the next two days it rains torrentially in Ubud; we have to cosy up in our lovely room as the rain thunders and the thunder rolls.

The skies are clear on the day we leave. We head east, more or less along the coast and end up in a spot called Tirta Gangga between the massive cloud-covered volcano ,Gunung Agung, and it’s smaller cousin, Gunung Seraya. A prince had built a water garden here which draws a small and steady flow of visitors, but what is really stunning is the landscape. Every shade of green in the spectrum has been used in the view fromAt our Tirta guest house our guest house. Palm trees pose dramatically above a ridge of wild grass, patches of jungle foliage explode like green bombs frozen in time, and thick creepers try to blanket everything. The real eye-catcher though, is the elaborate rice terracing. The terraces transcribe every surface with an anarchic geometry, each patch a perfect shade of spring green. As if this wasn’t enough, people and nature have thrown extravagant colour into the mix. Frangipani and hibiscus and bougainvillea tumble from the garden in front of us; the butterflies are almost too much of a hyperbole to mention. A hummingbird with a long curved bill hovers for a second and nearly breaks my heart. Once you get over that there are the towers of clouds sailing view from our room, Tirta Ganggathrough the skies. They can be real drama queens, flouncing up their skirts, pouting black, giving mischievous glimpses of a huge volcano, and glamming it up for the carnival of sunset.

Our room in Tirta Gangga is an impossible $8, and this includes a shower with white stones on the floor and ferns, flowers and a banana tree growing in the corner, open to the sky. Again, we curse the plan to not spend more time in Bali. One morning our host tells us it is ceremony day at one of the local temples, and we would be welcome to attend. We get directions and head into the rice fields. Actually the directions were: you will see lots of people, follow them. The ones we start to follow are too quick for us. We have dressed respectively in long sarongs, and hopping through the thin, often muddy terraces,  isn’t easy. As we get closer we see that, of course, there is an easier way, and on it are many men in traditional costumes and women carrying baskets of fruit and offerings on their heads. The Balinese love ceremonies, as one young man explained to us, not because they are necessarily deeply religious, but as much for the art and tradition.  You could, in my opinion, make an arguement that there is very little difference.

Another day we head off in a different direction, and after a while it seems to me that a distant-looking temple on a hill should be our destination. We meander through the the hilltop templemanicured landscape. The going is relatively easy, if a little indirect, and the worst thing is the over-protective dogs who always have to bark, and tell the next dog along the line that we are coming through. Eventually we reach the hill. For the first time that day, within sight of the temple, the paths vanish. The air is stagnant and the humidity is oppressive. For a couple hundred meters we are the suspicious focus of every dog in the valley, as we pull ourselves up the steep slope through thick elephant grass. The reward is a spectacular view – and of course, an obvious and easy way down. K. is enjoying dredging up some of her language skills unused for a decade, and jokes with locals that we pass.

The road back to Denpasar is like a mixed blessing: it gives us a spectacular winding route skirting the south slope of Gunung Agung, through beautiful little villages and more tumbling rice terraces around Sideman: but it is taking us awaysunset from Peter's house from here too soon.

We make our goodbyes to Peter and pay our 150,000 rupiah each exit tax. He has helped us out, once again, getting the last minute things done, including getting our last delicious and cheap take away dinner as our no-frills airline offers nothing you’d want to pay for. We leave the country with the equivalent of $1 in local currency.

From Bali we fly to Johor Bahru as no cheap fares are available to Singapore directly. We negotiate the trip from J.B., Malaysia, into our friends’ place by three local buses, the subway and finally a taxi for the last leg. As perfect hosts, they greet us with gin and tonics, followed by what any westerner after a long tour through Asia really wants: gorgonzola, camembert, old cheddar and red wine. Kerry and Frank have moved into a six bedroom house as their rented condo had doubled in price. As part of the financial melt down, cost cutting measures have moved the office into one of the bedrooms. When his official work week is over Frank springs into weekend mode and basically for the next two and a half days the only activity is cooking, eating, drinking wine and acquiring more groceries. We eat like kings and enjoy great times together, without doing too much in the city at all. Too soon we are back at an airport, flying as we always seem to be, back to Bangkok.

Selamat Jalan, Your Foreign Devil Corespondents

Don’t stop here!  See more Bali pics at: http://www.kebeandfast.com  and click EXPLORE!

 

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